Above: Arnold Vigil, who took the place ofTroy Vicenti when he was no longer able to work, played Little Beaver alongside Dave Saunders as Red Ryder. Photograph by Dick Kent Photography LLC.
TROY VICENTI SAYS HE BEACAME the chosen one not long after birth. Fred Harman, who was famous for his Red Ryder comic strip, lived on a Colorado ranch not far from the Vicentis’ home in Dulce, a little town that lies a bit west of Chama and serves as the tribal headquarters of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. Vicenti’s family and their neighbors were friends with Harman and visited him regularly. “I was still wrapped in a cloth and everything, and my mother took me up to his ranch,” Vicenti says. “And he told her: ‘This boy is going to be Little Beaver.’”
There aren’t many around today who remember Little Beaver, the pint-size Native American orphan who helped preserve law and order in the four-color comic pages of the 1940s. To modern eyes, the character may seem like a regrettable stereotype, a chubby little boy wearing a loincloth and moccasins, with one feather in his hair. He carried a bow and arrow and looked up to the heroic cowboy Red Ryder as his mentor and father figure. Back then, nearly 40 million readers followed along as Ryder and his little buddy righted wrongs and defeated bandits in more than 750 newspapers all across the country. They were the most popular comic strip characters of the 20th century—especially in Dulce, where Little Beaver’s star has never dimmed.
In fact, each July, this otherwise sleepy town wakes up to a major festival and parade in honor of Little Beaver, who made the leap from two dimensions to three after Harman met Vicenti. In 1956, when Vicenti had grown into an athletic eight-year-old, Harman asked him to play the character and, with another actor portraying Red Ryder, travel the country performing in rodeos and parades and on early live television.
Soon a group of Albuquerque investors began laying plans for a Native American theme park. Harman, who lived in Albuquerque part-time, suggested Little Beaver as the park’s mascot and primary draw. The planners agreed. Troy Vicenti, already playing the part, was a natural choice. In July 1961, Little Beaver Town opened, off old Route 66 east of Albuquerque, on a patch of open country at the mouth of Tijeras Canyon. A huge crowd of locals and tourists found dance halls, shops of the Old West Village, an Indian Camp, and a miniature train. They grabbed grub at the Red Bull Saloon and watched gunfights at the Western Skies Motel.
“Five times a day, there’d be a shootout,” says Roland Pentilla, of the Albuquerque Historical Society. “The bank would be robbed, and the bad guys would run out of the bank with sacks of money.” Red Ryder would then appear, six-guns a-blazing. The redheaded cowboy held his own against the bad men before being wounded by a well-aimed bullet, and then Little Beaver would rush to bring the fight to its inevitable conclusion: the triumph of law and order.
But Red Ryder’s popularity was already waning as television eclipsed comics. Attendance dropped sharply over that first summer season. The owners, facing financial difficulties, repeatedly delayed opening day in 1962. Harman took out a second mortgage and fronted money to preserve the park. But at the end of 1963, Little Beaver Town closed for good. That same year, Harman, perhaps demoralized, stopped drawing new strips, sold his Albuquerque home, returned to Pagosa Springs full-time, and turned his attention to painting Western scenes and portraits. No more would Red Ryder and Little Beaver pursue their adventures in the funny pages, and no more would Vicenti help capture crooks on Old Route 66.
Even as Red Ryder faded from the national consciousness, the Jicarilla Apache tribe never forgot Vicenti’s role as Little Beaver, and the parade, which began in his honor in 1958, has continued to the present day. The event now includes a rodeo, a powwow, races, competitions, and live music. In 2017, many of the elaborate parade floats featured horse-related scenes for the year’s theme, Honoring the Horse. Little Beaver’s likeness grinned from the sides of pickup trucks, banners, and horse trailers. Native celebrities, especially tribal beauty queens, punctuated the scene. There was Miss Jicarilla Apache, Miss Junior Jicarilla Apache, even little Miss Head Start. And finally, there was 2017’s Little Beaver himself, a boy no more than seven, smiling shyly and waving to his cheering fans.
“We love it!” said Sharona Moore, for whom the celebration is a cherished tradition. “My family comes in from all over, from Albuquerque, Kansas, and Arizona.” Even so, she’s never seen the original incarnation. “I heard there were comics, but I’ve never read one,” she said as her two young children dived for sweets tossed from the floats. “To us it’s more about seeing family, watching the parade, and my kids catching candy. It’s really grown into something more than Little Beaver.”
That’s true for Vicenti, too. After two tours in Vietnam, he took a job with the tribal government and started a family. Later, he served eight years on the tribal legislative council. He’s a tribal elder now, a spokesman far removed from the scrappy sidekick he once portrayed for a cowboys-and-Indians-obsessed American public.
Nothing remains of Little Beaver Town but a few chunks of cement, although the City of Albuquerque recently designated it as open space (nmmag.us/btown). But here in Dulce, a small sliver of a pop-culture phenomenon grew into a festival of togetherness. Nearly 70 years ago, a real-life Jicarilla Apache boy gave it a hometown niche, where it blossomed into something bigger than even Fred Harman could have foreseen.
WILD, WILD, WEST
This year’s Little Beaver Parade is on July 21 in Dulce (575-759-4375).
The Wild Horse Casino, in Dulce, is the closest option for lodging, but it will almost certainly sell out, so book early. On parade day, even the parking lot is packed (13603 US 64, 575-759-3663, apachenugget.com/hotel). Nearby Chama has a variety of motels and cabins, including the Hotel and Shops, a 1930s-era spot with classic railroad flair and reasonable prices (501 Terrace Ave., 575-756-2416, thehotel.org). The Hillcrest Restaurant, at the Wild Horse Casino, serves a full menu, but keep an eye out for food trucks, too. In Chama, you can’t go wrong with a burger and beer at the High Country Restaurant and Saloon (2289 S. NM 17, 575-756-2384, on Facebook).